The Piqi data definition language
Table of Contents
3.1. Module names
3.2. Module imports
3.3. Module includes
3.4. Extension modules
10. Style guidelines
10.2. Names for
10.3. Naming of
10.5. Code formatting
Piqi is a universal high-level data definition language.
Below is a brief overview of Piqi features.
Piqi supports a rich set of types.
- primitive types:
boolean, integer, single- and double-precision floating point number, string (Unicode string), binary (byte array)
- user defined types:
record, variant (tagged union), enum, list and alias.
Piqi has high-level modules.
Piqi modules provide several mechanisms for reusing type definitions from other modules:
A module can import another module. It allows to use types defined in the imported module in local type definitions.
A module can include another module to reuse all of its type definitions, imports and extensions as if they where defined locally.
Piqi supports type extensions and data schema evolution.
All Piqi types can be extended either directly or through extensions mechanism:
more fields can be added to a
more options can be added to a
more properties can be assigned to an
Backward and forward schema compatibility can be maintained by using Google Protocol Buffers approach when a unique integer number is assigned to each field in a record (read more about it in Google Protocol Buffers documentation).
If schema compatibility is not needed (e.g. during prototyping stage), Piqi can assign field numbers automatically. Piqi can also automatically assign
Piqi is self-defined and portable.
Piqi module data structure is defined using the Piqi language itself.
As a result, a Piqi module can be converted into a portable JSON, XML or Protocol Buffers representation.
One of interesting Piqi properties is that the language implementation takes its own high-level specification, written in Piqi, and parses the language into AST without any hand-written parsing rules — it is all fully automated.
The Piqi language is extensible.
The Piqi language is based on a general-purpose data representation language called Piq.
Now, let’s look at the following three properties.
- Piqi module is just a data structure represented in Piq format (or any other supported portable formats such as JSON), meaning that there’s no concrete language syntax.
- the Piqi module data structure is described using the same language
- the Piqi data definition language supports schema extensions in a backward-compatible way
This means that once we extend the Piqi self-specification, we instantly have those extensions in the language: there is no need to design new syntax elements, update parsing code and transform AST into intermediate language. Moreover, the new extensions are fully transparent from the core Piqi implementation standpoint, because extensions are backward-compatible.
Piqi borrows many concepts from Google Protocol Buffers which, at the moment, is much better documented than Piqi. It may be useful to get familiar with Protocol Buffers along with reading Piqi documentation.
For those who are familiar with Google Protocol Buffers, information about its compatibility with Piqi can be found on this page.
2. Lexical conventions
The Piqi language described in the remaining part of the document is based on Piq syntax which is specified here.
In addition to general Piq rules, Piqi relies on some extra syntax elements, such as identifiers that are used for type names, field name, option names and so on.
Piqi identifier has the following format:
<identifier> ::= ['a'-'z' 'A'-'Z'] ['a'-'z' 'A'-'Z' '0'-'9' '-']*
Piqi identifiers are case-sensitive.
NOTE: use of underscore (
_) characters in Piqi identifiers is not allowed. Hyphens (
-) should be used instead.
Two or more consecutive
- characters are now allowed. Also, identifiers can not begin and end with
`true` and `false` are reserved for boolean literals — they can not be used as identifiers. As you will see in the following sections, this makes them the only keywords in the language.
Piqi modules are defined as non-empty files with
.piqi extensions. A
.piqi file represents one Piqi module.
Piqi modules converted from Google Protocol Buffer specification have
.proto.piqi file extension.
.proto.piqi are the only file extensions allowed for Piqi modules. Other extensions are not recognized by Piqi tools. (When the Piqi implementation resolves Piqi types and Piqi module names it searches for files with
.proto.piqi extensions using module search paths.)
There are also several restrictions to
.piqi file names, because Piqi module names are usually derived from the file names. See the next section for details.
Each Piqi module can contain the following entries:
type extension directives
In addition, Piqi module can include one or more
custom-field top-level properties. They are used to prevent "Unknown field" warning messages about fields that are not natively supported by the Piqi implementation. For example, including
will tell Piqi tools to ignore properties like
.ocaml-name "foo" as they are only meaningful to
3.1. Module names
Piqi module names consist of two parts: module path and local module name. These parts directly correspond to where
.piqi files are located in the directory hierarchy.
For example, module named (or referred as)
would usually by defined in file
As you can see, the local module name is derived from the file name by stripping the
A module can explicitly specify its name. For example:
However, explicitly defined module names are rarely used in practice. Most of time, they will be automatically derived from the location of the
Piqi module names can be formally described as follows:
<module-name> ::= (<path> '/')? <local-module-name> <local-module-name> ::= ['a'-'z' 'A'-'Z'] ['a'-'z' 'A'-'Z' '0'-'9' '-' '_']* <path> ::= <path-element> | <path> '/' <path-element> <path-element ::= ['a'-'z' 'A'-'Z' '0'-'9' '-' '_' '.']+ NOTE: a <local-module-name> can not contain both `-` and `_` characters.
When Piqi looks for included or imported
.piqi module by its module name, it tris one or more directories until it finds the matching file. The lookup order is defined as follows:
- directory from which the referring module was loaded
- search paths explicitly provided by using the
-I ..command-line parameter, which can be specified more than once
- current working directory (
- search paths listed in the
PIQI_PATHenvironment variable, with several paths separated by
For instance, if module
a is imported from module
b, Piqi will first look in the directory from which module
b was loaded, then in paths specified using
-I, then in
., and finally, in paths from
When locating an imported or included module named
<path>/<local-module-name> in one of the search paths, Piqi looks for the module’s file in the following order:
- same as 1 but
- same as 2 but
- same as 3 but
same as 4 but
Rules 1–4 mean that Piqi allows interchangeable use of
- in local module names. The recommended style is to use
.piqi file names and
- in imported and included module names. See also the Style guidelines section below.
Rules 5–6 account for additional module path normalization, during which path is changed to include only
- characters. This may be useful, for example, for using module names as a part of URL strings.
3.2. Module imports
Imports provides a way to use types defined in other Piqi modules in local type definitions.
In order to use other module’s types, the module must be first "imported" by using the
Import directive defines the following properties:
Name of the imported module.
import name (optional)
This is a local shorthand for referring types defined in the imported module as
When not specified, it is implicitly defined as the local module name (i.e. the last path segment) of the imported module.
.import [ .module example.com/foo ] % overriding implicitly derived import name "foo" with "bar" .import [ .module example.com/foo .name bar ]
3.3. Module includes
Include mechanism provide a way to reuse type definitions, imports, extensions and all other top-level entries from another module as if they where defined locally.
A module can include several other modules to combine their contents together.
include directive is used to specify module inclusion. It has only one property which the name of the included module.
.include [ .module example.com/foo ]
3.4. Extension modules
Extension module is a Piqi module that has a second extension in its file name. For example, "m.ocaml.piqi" is an extension module for a regular Piqi module "m.piqi".
All operations applicable to regular Piqi modules are also supported for extension modules. The difference is that extension modules can be included automatically in the modules which they extend.
piqic-erlang Piqi compilers try to automatically include
<m>.erlang.piqi respectively for every loaded module
Extension modules are useful for working with third-party Piqi or Protocol Buffers definitions which, for example, may not define necessary OCaml- or Erlang-specific properties in the first place.
By using this mechanism, it is possible to take any set of Piqi modules and write custom extensions for them without modifying the original files. After that, extensions can be loaded automatically for all recursively included and imported Piqi modules.
4. Primitive types
inttype represents signed integers. Supported range for this type is implementation-specific (i.e. depends on a certain Piqi mapping) but normally it should be capable for holding at least 32-bit signed integers.
The maximum supported range for
inttype is defined as
(min(signed 64-bit integer), max(unsigned 64-bit integer)).
In addition to
int, there are some other variations of integer types supported by default. They are defined as aliases of
inttype in Piqi self-definition: piqi.piqi. Each Piqi mapping should provide support for these types.
Below is the full list of Piqi integer types. Their names reflect some properties associated with their binary encoding and language mappings. See for example, Piqi–Protocol Buffers mapping.
If unsure which integer type to use, it is recommended to use
uintcan be a little bit more efficient compared to
intwhen serialized to binary encoding.
uint64are similar to
uintbut they guarantee the integer ranges associated with these types (32-bit and 64-bit).
IEEE 754 double-precision floating point.
IEEE 754 single-precision floating point.
Byte array (sequence of bytes).
5. Special built-in types
There are two special built-in types:
This type represents dynamically typed values in one of the supported portable data format (Protobuf, JSON, XML) or completely untyped JSON and XML.
At low level,
piqi-anymaps to the
anyrecord defined in the Piqi self-specification.
You can find some Piq examples here.
Values of this type are embedded Piqi modules. This type can not be used as a valid type name inside type definitions (at least yet). However, it is recognized by Piqi command-line tools and used in Piq format.
6. User-defined types
A user-defined defines a new type name that must be unique within the module’s local namespace and must not override names of the Piqi built-in primitive types (e.g.
Type name must be a valid
Record is a composite data type that contains zero or more fields or flags.
Fields can have the following properties:
Field name is represented as a valid Piqi
Field name can be omitted. In such case it will be implicitly derived from the field’s type name.
Field names must be unique across all fields for a given record.
Field type name refer to one of the following:
Built-in type. E.g.
Another type defined within the current module or included module.
Type imported from another module. In this case type name will have the following format:
Field that doesn’t specify type is called flag. Since instance of such field doesn’t have associated value, its presence in the record is meaningful by itself. Therefore the name — flag.
Flags must be defined with
Field mode can be specified as one of
repeated. As follows from their names:
requiredmeans that exactly one field instance must be present in the record. This is the default.
optionalfield may be present or missing in the record.
repeatedmeans that zero or more instances of the field may be present in the record.
optionalfields it is possible to specify default value that can be used as a default field’s value when the field is missing in the record representation. The actual use of default value depends on a particular Piqi mapping.
Default values are represented as Piq values of the field’s type, e.g. integer literals for
code(optional, used with Protocol Buffer binary format)
Usually small integer > 1 uniquely identifying a field within a record. It must either defined for all fields or for none of the fields. When not defined, Piqi implicitly generates codes by enumerating the fields in the order they are defined in the record. See Piqi–Protocol Buffers mapping for details.
protobuf-packed(optional, used with Protocol Buffer binary format)
Repeated fields of primitive numeric types (integers, floats, booleans and enums) can be represented in so called "packed" format. This format was introduced in Protocol Buffers 2.3.0 and provides a more compact encoding for repeated primitive types by basically omitting field tags for all fields but the first one and stacking fields values one after another. This is possible because primitive numeric types are self-delimited.
In order to use such "packed" representation for a repeated field, specify
.protobuf-packedas a field property.
json-name(optional, used with JSON format)
Field name used when data is encoded in JSON. When not specified explicitly, it is derived from Piqi identifiers by replacing
Use this flag to mark fields that are no longer used or supported. Usually, such deprecated fields are kept around in the spec because of various considerations related to backward compatibility.
% this is a record definition .record [ .name r % record name % required integer field .field [ .name i .type int % NOTE: fields are "required" by default; one can specify it explicitly: %.required ] % optional string field .field [ .name s .type string .optional ] % optional binary field with default value (NOTE: default values may only be % specified for optional fields) .field [ .name b .type binary .optional .default "abc \xff\x00" ] % repeated floating point field .field [ .name f .type float .repeated ] % this is a flag, its presence in the record is meaningful by itself, it % doesn't carry any additional value .field [ .name flag % NOTE: flags must be defined as .optional; obviously, .default value % doesn't make any sense for flags and thus not allowed .optional ] % optional "self" .field [ .name self .type r % here referencing the record we're defining now .optional ] % another optional filed which references type defined below .field [ % NOTE: if field name and type name are the same, field name may % be omitted .type v .optional ] % required field of type "t" imported from module "mod" .field [ .type mod/t ] % repeated integer field represented using "packed" format in binary % encoding .field [ .name p .type int .repeated .protobuf-packed ] ]
The Variant type, also known as tagged union, specifies a set of options. Only one option instance can form a variant value at a time.
For example, a well-known enum type is a simple example of variant type.
Options define name and type name properties in the same manner as fields for the record type. The same rules and considerations apply for option name and option type name as for field name and field type name (see above).
% definition of a variant .variant [ .name v .option [ .name i .type int ] .option [ % NOTE: if option name and option type are the same, field name may % be omitted .type r ] .option [ .type e ] % options may not be associated with any types, such options are similar to % those used in enums .option [ .name flag ] % those used in enums .option [ .name l .type v-list % see below ] ]
Enum is a degenerated case of the variant type. Enum defines options similarly to variant, but enum options don’t have types and can’t hold values.
.enum [ .name e .option [ .name a ] .option [ .name b ] .option [ .name c ] ] .enum [ .name months .option [ .name jan ] .option [ .name feb ] .option [ .name mar ] % ... ]
List type represents a list of elements where all elements have the same type.
% list of v .list [ % NOTE: "-list" suffix is conventional and not strictly required .name v-list .type v ] % list of built-in type .list [ .name int-list .type int ] .list [ .name int-list-list .type int-list ]
Alias defines an alias for some other user-defined, built-in or imported type.
% an alias .alias [ .name a .type v ] % just to give an idea of how it can be used .alias [ .name uuid .type binary ] .alias [ .name epoch-seconds .type uint64 ]
In Piqi, aliases are also used to assign static properties for types. For instance, all Piqi integer types other than
int itself are defined as aliases of the built-in
int type. For example, this is the definition of
.alias [ .name int64 .type.int .protobuf-type "sint64" % correspondent Protocol Buffers type .protobuf-wire-type.zigzag-varint % type of binary (wire) encoding ]
At the moment, there aren’t many properties implemented by Piqi, but the concept itself is very powerful. For example, this is how custom formatting functions could be defined using aliases:
.alias [ .name epoch-seconds .type uint64 .format.date-time ] .alias [ .name uuid .type binary .format.uuid ] .alias [ .name sha1sum .type binary .format.sha1 ]
The extensions mechanism allows to add more components and properties to Piqi entries.
Extensions can be applied to user-defined types (including records, variants, enums, lists and aliases), fields, options, functions, function parameters and imports.
Each extension can have the following properties:
Extension target specifies which Piqi entry to extend. It is a combination of entry type followed by distinct entry name.
This is a full list of supported extension targets:
.typedef <type name>
.field <record name>.<field-name>
.option <variant or enum name>.<option-name>
.import <import name>
.function <function name>
Targets can be specified more than once. In such case, several target entries will be extended using the same extension entries.
Target must refer to a locally defined Piqi entry or entries included from other modules via
Extensions of imported definitions are not supported.
actual extension entry
Extension entry specifies an object that will be added to the extended entry as if it was defined there natively.
For example, a field definition would be a typical extension entry for record type. Similarly, option entries would be typically used for extending enum or variant type.
For example, we can add a field to a previously defined record:
.record [ .name r .field [ .name i .type int ] ] .extend [ .typedef r .with.field [ .name s .type string ] ]
Or we could use extension to add an enum clause:
.enum [ .name e .option [ a ] ] .extend [ .typedef e .with.option [ .name b ] ]
Extending fields, options or function parameters requires a slightly different target specification:
.extend [ .field r.i .with.erlang-name "erlang_i" ] .extend [ .option e.b .with.ocaml-name "ocaml_b" ]
In the same manner we can add arbitrary properties to variants, lists, aliases, functions and imports.
There is a good example that demonstrates the power of Piqi extensions. The Piqi implementation uses this mechanism to extend its own specification with extra features. For example, the following specification extends Piqi to support Protocol Buffers properties:
Similarly, support for OCaml-specific Piqi properties is provided by these two specifications:
function directive provides a way to define abstract functions. Functions were originally introduced for Piqi-RPC that relies on high-level function definitions.
Each defined function has a name and 3 types of parameters: input, output and error, all of which are optional.
The error parameter is a special type of output parameter. It is assumed that when the function is called, only one of output or error parameters will be returned.
It is possible for a function to not have any input or output parameters at all. Such function represents a named synchronous call where the call is meaningful by itself and no parameters are passed in any direction.
Input and output function parameters correspond to an arbitrary (primitive or composite) named Piqi data types. That is, Piqi function takes data structure as input parameter, and returns a data structure as output parameter.
% function with no input and output parameters .function [ .name foo ] % function with input, output and error parameters .function [ .name foo .input int .output some-user-defined-type-name .error string ]
For extra convenience, function may define an input, output or error types inline without having to define them separately:
% function with a record input parameter and primitive output and error .function [ .name bar .input [ .field [ .type int .optional ] ] .output int .error float ] % function with a record input that has a default value .function [ .name baz .input [ .field.record [ .type int .optional .default 10 ] ] ] % function with a variant input parameter .function [ .name v .output.variant [ .option [ .name i .type int ] .option [ .name f .type float ] ] ] % function with an enum error parameter .function [ .name e .error.enum [ .option [ .name a ] .option [ .name b ] ] ]
For each defined input, output or error parameter, a correspondent Piqi alias or a composite type gets implicitly defined. Records, variants, lists and enums are generated for inline parameter definitions, aliases are generated for all other types that are referred by name.
In case of input parameters, the name of the alias or the user-defined type becomes
<function-name>-input. Similarly, names for output and error parameters become
9. Piqi-light syntax
Piqi-light syntax is an experimental lightweight EBNF-like read-only notation for Piqi type definitions. It provides a compact way of displaying type definitions while omitting all non-significant properties that may be present in the original Piqi specification.
The original Piqi syntax is based on Piq that is optimized for editing convenience and extensibility. But the same properties that make Piqi/Piq such a great format for editing and representing all the features, also make it substantially verbose and uniform. Both verbosity and uniformity make it harder to consume Piqi for informational purposes. Piqi takes a lot of display space and doesn’t provide more prominent syntax for important properties such as field names and types which, in the absence of concrete syntax, get the same visual treatment as other less important language properties.
On the other hand, in practice, type definitions are rarely modified once initially written. Therefore it is feasible to have a type definition syntax that is optimized for reading.
These considerations lead to the idea that, maybe, it is practical to have two highly expressive syntaxes: one being optimized for reading, and another one — for writing and extensibility.
After having both syntaxes implemented, benefits of such division are becoming more obvious. It would be extremely hard to provide an efficient unified language solution for both of these use-cases, especially considering how different the current Piqi and Piqi-light notations are.
There is one very important feature that Piqi-light is missing at the moment. It is hand-written comments from the original Piqi specification. Unfortunately, it will remain this way until Piqi obtains a uniform method of writing documentation sections that can be reliably represented and passed to Piqi-light.
.piqi files can be printed in Piqi-light syntax using
piqi light command (for the lack of a better name).
10. Style guidelines
10.1. Type, field and option names
Although Piqi doesn’t enforce certain naming style, it is recommended to use lowercase identifiers instead of "CamelCase"-style identifiers.
This way they are more readable and will retain readability while being combined with some future Piqi features.
The guiding principle for this rule is that high-level Piqi type definitions should resemble grammar rules.
Piqi pretty-printer from Piqi tools can be used to convert "CamelCase" identifiers to "camel-case" (
piqi pp --normalize <.piqi> file command).
10.2. Names for
It is recommended to name
list types by appending
-list suffix to the original type name.
For example, if we wanted to define a list of type
t, we would name the type
*-list names for non-list types should be avoided.
One of possible Piqi future features can rely on that: piqi would recognize
*-list type names as list types automatically removing the need for defining
list types manually.
10.3. Naming of
.piqi files, it is better use lowercase and
_ as word separator.
As with identifiers, the choice of this convention is determined by the fact that is is more universal and popular among various programming languages (and URLs!) than "MixedCase" naming schemes.
10.4. A note about directory paths
It is typical for
.piqi modules to be located in nested directory hierarchies. When this is the case, directory paths become parts of module names. For example, if a Piqi module
bar.piqi is defined inside directory
foo, other modules may refer to it as
Piqi doesn’t impose any restriction on how directories should be named. However, future normalization schemes will likely automatically turn directory names to lowercase with
- being a word separators.
Considering future normalization, it is recommenced to name directories using lowercase characters with
- character as a word separator. This way directory name normalization won’t be needed.
10.5. Code formatting
Since Piqi is based on Piq syntax, general Piq formatting rules apply.
11. Miscellaneous Design Notes
For the sake of better readability and portability Piqi doesn’t support nested definitions.
As you may noticed, Piqi type definitions are strictly monomorphic. As with nested definitions, this design decision was driven by portability and simplicity of the Piqi language and its potential mappings. There are many programming languages that don’t support parametric polymorphism. On the other hand, the world of practical protocols and portable data is surprisingly monomorphic (with sequences being the only exception). This, in turn, means that the absence of polymorphism at the data definition level is unlikely to ever become a serious practical limitation.